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Meet Chris Nikolis, Difference Maker

Presented by the Windsor Jaycees, Chris Nikolis is a difference maker for his efforts in raising awareness of and funds for cancer research.

Windsor-native Chris Nikolis is a trailblazer in the truest sense of the word.

He has biked hundreds of miles in the name of cancer research, and now, he (along with his wife Denise, a graduate of Windsor High School) has organized a Jimmy Fund fundraiser that will be the first of its kind in the state.

Nikolis, who's father is Jim of Jim's Family Restaurant & Pizzaria, experienced the impact cancer can have on one's family as a child. Since then, he has become a staunch supporter of the Jimmy Fund, including participation in the Pan-Massachusetts Challenge (PMC) as a cyclist for three years running.

He is now taking his passion for cancer awareness and fundraising to the next level with what will be the inaugural PMC Kids Ride at Suffield's McAlister Intermediate School on May 12.

A father of three [twins Ariana and Maggie (5) and James (3)], Nikolis' family-friendly event will feature a day in which kids can get involved with PMC's efforts, which benefit adult and pediatric cancer research and patient care at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Windsor Patch spoke with Nikolis about his work to make cancer a disease of the past, and his upcoming event.

Windsor Patch: You've ridden hundreds of miles to raise money for cancer research. Was it natural for you to take that route to raise funds and awareness?

Chris Nikolis: I'm busy with a young family and busy with work. I don't have time to do everything I'd like to do [to give back], so I was able to combine two things: helping a really great cause in the Jimmy Fund and the Pan-Mass. Challenge — there's no finer cause anywhere; and it's allowed me to get out there, and I ride my bike a lot, I enjoy it quite a bit. It keeps me in pretty good shape, and it's all geared towards that first week in August when we get together and ride from Sturbridge to Cape Cod.

WP: What is it about bike rides, walks and runs that lend themselves to raising funds for cancer research?

CN: For me, it's the community aspect of it. It's not any one biker or volunteer or any of that. It's everyone together, and that's what it takes to make all of this work. It's a great sense of community to be a part of (the Pan-Mass. Challenge)... It's really people coming together for a great cause, sacrificing, having some fun doing it — although I can't say all the training and all the miles are always fun — but we're all committed to the same cause... it's a great weekend that celebrates — not to sound corny, but — it celebrates a lot of what's really good about people.

WP: What's inspired you to take on the challenge of increasing awareness and raising funds for cancer research?

CN: My family, like just about everyone on there, has been impacted by cancer. I lost my grandfather when I was 12 years old, and since then it's been way, way too many friends and family members... it's a long list, unfortunately, and I think most of us can say the same thing. No one really escapes (cancer), I don't think. Over the course of time, sooner or later, unfortunately, everyone's family is going to feel the impact in some fashion, and we have too. That's part of it for me, and the ability to raise money for a cause, the Jimmy Fund, that is so outstanding, and does so many great things for so many people. It's just been great to be a part of it.

Hopefully one day we can all ride — we talk about his, some of the guys I ride with and others — we can all just go out and ride one weekend in August and not have to raise money for cancer because it'll be over. That would be great. That would be a really good weekend.

WP: As you said, seemingly everyone has been affected by this disease, my family included, but why is it particularly important that children get involved in the fundraising effort?

CN: Well, I think for a few reasons... The PMC is obviously made up of, for the most part, adults or some teenagers that ride. I think it's important to keep that group of young folks interested. I think it's a great example to set. I know for my wife and I, we have three young kids, and we try and do different things during the year that we sit and talk with them about why we're doing them, and we're very fortunate as a family. My wife and I, we have three beautiful kids, supportive, big families. We're blessed with a lot of terrific things, and part of getting involved with PMC at that point was I wanted to make sure that I am taking the time to be a part of something that's not just about me.

The kids ride started a few years ago. Combined, it raised almost one million dollars towards the event. I think it's a good example for kids. It's a great day for the family to get together. You get out, get some fresh air, get some exercise, and I think it's a real important lesson for kids, for all of us to learn. If we can take some time to give back and help others, that goes a long way.

WP: For parents who would like to convey the importance of this issue to their kids and want them to get involved, what type of advice would you have for them?

CN: Well first of all, I have young kids, and they like being outside, they like being on their bikes and playing. I think the older two — my twins are five — they're old enough to understand the concept of trying to help people that may need it; that not everyone has everything that we're blessed to have... I think a lot of it is really up to each parent to convey that message to their kids, and if they're really young kids and it's just "we're going to go and have a fun day," that's great. If they're older kids, they may be able to discuss what the cause is all about and what the impact is. I think that's good too, but I know that it's something I take very seriously as a dad, and I trust that a lot other parents do too, so I'm sure they'll be able to find the right way to convey that. The bottom line is it's a great way to come together and spend half a day doing the ride. We'll have a playground there, a band, face painters, Shriners clowns and food for everyone. So it's not  just come ride your bikes and go. It's come, take part in a fun day that begins with a bike ride, but there will be at least a couple of hours after that where people can hopefully stick around and have an awful lot of fun.

WP: Along the lines of the importance of giving to others, were there any moments in your life that influenced the giving you do today? Was there a lightbulb moment?

CN: I know that my parents very much tried to instill that. I know for years at , my dad put on benefits — my mom and dad, they both worked there together. They put on numerous benefits, donated to an awful lot of charities in town, really made themselves part of the Windsor community. So if there was one collection of moments that were a lightbulb, that's probably it.

The example they set: how hard they worked, and the number of times they donated, either through money, through pizza, or whatever it might have been. There were so many worthy causes. I remember opening several different times, all day, and all proceeds would go to the Windsor Volunteer Ambulance and other groups, and there were other days like that.

Beyond that, we're all here making our way. There are different times when we could all use a little bit of help or a push. Luckily, I haven't needed the kind of push the Jimmy Fund can give you, but my mom is a survivor. My mom is a breast cancer survivor, and I don't lose sight of the fact that somewhere a long the way somebody walked, somebody rode a bike, the doctors and nurses studied to do what they do. It all comes together to see positives. Unfortunately, the list of people I know that are survivors is smaller than the list of people that have passed on, and the goal is to keep making the first list as long as possible.

Click here to learn more about the Suffield PMC Kids Ride

Do you know someone who is making a difference in our community? Nominate them by sending a name and nature of the difference made by emailing Windsor Patch Editor Julian McKinley at julian.mckinley@patch.com.

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